John Graham Pontin OBE

Doctor of Laws

21 February 2007 - Orator: Mr Barry Taylor

 Mr Vice-Chancellor: John Pontin

The word ‘visionary’ is overused these days, but it can be applied to our honorary graduand, John Pontin, without hyperbole. His success in business, his innovations in the field of design and construction, his role in urban and community regeneration and his work to safeguard the environment constitute an outstanding body of achievement. They are the products of a coherent vision for a better world and an amazing level of personal energy.

The son of a postman, John was brought up in the Southville area of Bristol. As a child, he contracted pleurisy and spent ten months in a sanatorium. His lacklustre performance at school and his failure of the 11-Plus may have been consequences of this misfortune. An alternative explanation is that John’s prodigious imagination distracted him during lessons and gave rise to the chronic lack of concentration bemoaned by his head teacher.

The 16-year-old John joined the Bristol building firm of John Knox and worked his way up from tea boy to junior building surveyor. He turned 21 in 1958, and three things conspired to make that a good year for him: he gained a Higher National Diploma; he won the South West’s annual quantity surveying award; and, best of all, his future business partner, Tim Organ, joined the firm.

The young men worked together on contract planning, but grew frustrated by the adversarial nature of the business. The culture of the construction industry was anything but constructive; conflict between clients, architects and contractors had long been the order of the day. How to break out of that? John and Tim felt that a more holistic approach might be the answer. After all, much of the nearby City of Bath had been designed and constructed by master builders who had control over the whole process. Perhaps it was time to escape the wrangling by reviving integration.

With their 1960 Christmas bonus of £100 each, the pair struck out on their own and established JT (Bristol) Limited – ‘J’ for John and ‘T’ for Tim. Their office was the latter’s bedroom in Coronation Road, South Bristol. John was 23.

At that time, Britain was finally casting off its post-war austerity and going for growth. There was work aplenty for an energetic firm that could meet clients’ building requirements without fuss, on time and within budget.

A trip to New York in 1962 brought John into contact with some of Manhattan’s real-estate pioneers. The visit strengthened his conviction that the way forward was to dispense with traditional professional barriers and bring together architects, engineers, surveyors, builders and property managers. Collective energy could then be focused on the needs of the client, who would benefit from lower costs, fewer delays and nowhere near as many cross words.

JT’s unconventional approach worked. The firm started to win awards. Eighteen months after their business was born, the partners were able to move it out of Tim’s bedroom and into proper offices.

JT doubled its turnover each year during the early ’60s, focusing on striking, modern design and speed and ease of construction. The company was innovative not only in its design-and-build philosophy but also in its style as an employer. In an industry that was then renowned for poor communication, lack of training and indifferent labour relations, JT nurtured strong, highly motivated teams and encouraged dialogue.

Tim Organ left the company amicably in 1969 to set up on his own, but JT – both the firm and the name – continued. The early ’70s saw the company prosper. Its staff of over 50 worked in open-plan offices. There was a flat management structure, a great deal of creative freedom and very few, largely unwritten, policies. At the same time, hard work and strong corporate loyalty were the norm. One of the firm’s most successful creations at that time was the high-density, low-rise housing development in Bristol’s High Kingsdown, which won four national awards and which still, more than 30 years later, inspires interest and affection.

During the 1970s, JT created all manner of buildings in the UK, from country clubs to warehouses and from churches to swimming pools. There was work abroad, too, including the marble-clad Municipality Building in Dubai.

But John was also closely involved in major challenges back home, including what to do with Bristol City Docks given that commercial port operations had moved several miles downstream. He was among the prime movers in rescuing the docks from near-dereliction and has played a significant role in progressing one of the UK’s most difficult waterfront regeneration programmes.

JT bought the lease on a Grade II listed Victorian warehouse on the quayside, evicted hundreds of pigeons and spent 18 months renovating the building to create a new home both for itself and for Arnolfini, Bristol’s groundbreaking centre for the performing and visual arts. When it opened in 1975, the new Arnolfini was described by The Observer as ‘Certainly the grandest arts centre in the country’. JT had succeeded in adapting an historic building for mixed uses and breathing new life into a struggling locality. The renewal of the warehouse sparked a wider revival in the City Docks and demonstrated the power of the arts in driving economic and social change.

JT also leased moribund warehouses on the opposite side of the water from Arnolfini. The firm was instrumental in conserving these cavernous spaces and putting them to new uses. The pioneering Watershed Media Centre, which opened in 1982, occupied two of them. In subsequent years, JT initiated a scheme to build a pedestrian bridge across the water between Arnolfini and the Watershed. Opened in 1999, Pero’s Bridge, named after a black slave who died in Bristol in 1798, was the product of an artist working with engineers to create something functional and visually stunning. JT is still innovating in the City Docks – just last year, the company completed the development of a stylish waterside restaurant run on radically zero-waste, sustainable lines.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, all this highlights one of John Pontin’s enduring obsessions: how to do good business while looking after the environment and creating something attractive, socially beneficial and enduring. A further example is his leading role over many years in the development of Dartington Hall, a unique blend of educational, cultural and business enterprises on a sprawling rural estate in South Devon. Then there are his close ties with the restoration and use of Leigh Court, a Palladian mansion just outside Bristol that JT rescued from the receiver and turned into a tranquil base for a range of business and allied interests.

The list of other projects, initiatives and organisations to which John has devoted his time and talent is staggering. It includes a radio station, a charity that manages philanthropic giving on behalf of donors, and numerous bodies involved in education, conservation, strategic planning and regeneration. Somehow he finds time to run his own charitable trust as well.

John is also a leading light in the Go Zero sustainability project in his home village of Chew Magna. The project may mean that Chew will become the first village in the UK that can fairly claim to be carbon neutral. What is more, residents have formed links with villages in India with the intention of helping them to harness the wind as a sustainable source of energy. This could be the start of a much more ambitious scheme that could give the West of England a distinctive role in bringing the developed and developing nations together in a bid to address climate change and global warming. Details must remain under wraps until later in the year; anyone on the lookout for fresh ideas on the environment might like to keep an eye on John.

As if all this were not enough, JT, which John has led for over 40 years, has established a not-for-profit company called Under the Sky. Under John’s chairmanship, this new organisation is working in partnership with public bodies and charities to restore or create places in which local businesses and community enterprises can thrive. The company is dedicated to urban regeneration on a human scale, releasing the economic, social and environmental value of neglected sites that are off the radar as far as conventional developers are concerned.

It may be that the name ‘Pontin’ has something to do with bridges. Our honorary graduand has been building those all his life – mostly figuratively, occasionally literally. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Graham Pontin, OBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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